Pushing an open door? Ireland and the EEC referendum of 1972

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), News, Volume 17

The Berlaymont Building in Brussels, headquarters of the European Commission.

The Berlaymont Building in Brussels, headquarters of the European Commission.

‘The decision which the Irish people will make on 10 May will be recorded either as an unprecedented opportunity which we chose to grasp with incalculable gain, or which we chose to throw away with irreparable loss’
—Taoiseach Jack Lynch, April 1972


The campaign for EEC membership didn’t really begin until November 1970, when civil servants became alarmed at the amount of publicity that the ‘No’ campaign was receiving. In a letter to Taoiseach Jack Lynch, Patrick Hillery, minister for external affairs, expressed concern that while the accession negotiations were ‘progressing satisfactorily’, the general public in Ireland ‘are gradually slipping from a position of a high percentage in favour of membership to one of growing opposition to our entry’. The Department of External Affairs was to the fore in the EEC membership debate. The role of the Department of Finance had diminished somewhat from the senior position it had held over the decade from 1960, marked by the departure of T. K. Whitaker, who took over as governor of the Irish Central Bank in 1970.
The government saw pro-EEC publicity as crucial, as well as a system of rapid counter-publicity to anti-EEC statements. Policy-makers stressed the need for (a) ministerial speeches (an average of one per week), (b) pamphlets, which were to be short, lucid booklets dealing with each major topic, to be made available for public distribution, and (c) newspaper articles and to encourage journalists to write articles on their own areas of interest and ‘assist them with material’. Hillery’s policy was to use all branches of government to facilitate the ‘Yes’ campaign. He went a step further in January 1971 when he established a special EEC information service within his department. The aim was to provide information on EEC affairs, to carry out liaison work with the public and to help in producing a series of booklets setting out basic information about the Common Market. The information service would also work closely with the Irish branch of the European Movement.
Arguably, the greatest weapon at the disposal of the ‘Yes’ camp was Jack Lynch. Dick Walsh states that where de Valera inspired dogged admiration and deep hostility in equal measure and Lemass excited the imagination of young people on the move, Lynch won affection. The government’s argument for membership was unevenly divided between the benefits that would accrue to the agricultural sector almost immediately after accession and those that would, in the long term, benefit Irish industry, while the anti-Common Market groups pushed the loss of sovereignty issue as well as arguing for what they saw as credible alternatives to membership.
In most speeches on the membership question, Hillery argued that those who were opposed to membership represented ‘no more than a small minority’. Opening the Fianna Fáil party’s EEC referendum campaign, Lynch asked the party faithful to ensure that the ‘real issues in this referendum’ were put clearly before the electorate in every constituency to convince them that it was in their own and ‘in the country’s best interests’ that they should vote ‘Yes’. He said that the anti-Marketeers’ slogan of ‘Keep Ireland free. Vote “no” to the EEC’ was ‘as dishonest as it is bogus’, and he felt that those who promoted it were trying to secure, on the basis of an appeal to ‘emotion’, what they know ‘full well they cannot get on the basis of sound argument and common sense’. He attacked the particular brand of freedom and republicanism that (ironically) would opt for Ireland maintaining its links with Britain and a ‘No’ vote. For Lynch, those days were over; it was no longer acceptable to be economically dependent on ‘a powerful neighbour’, a dependence, he believed, that had proved such ‘a serious handicap to us over the past 50 years’. A negative result would not only copperfasten partition of the country by remaining outside the EEC, but ‘We would also be increasing our dependence on Britain.  Can any Irishman seriously want this?’
The result of the referendum was decisive. On 10 May 1972, over a million of the just over 1.2 million who went to the polls voted ‘Yes’.
Michael J. Geary lectures in the history of European integration at Maastricht University.

Further reading:

M. J. Geary, An inconvenient wait: Ireland’s quest for membership of the EEC, 1957–73 (Dublin, 2009).

B. Laffan and J. O’Mahony, Ireland and the European Union (Basingstoke, 2008).


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